” The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.” -Alexander von Humboldt
Have you ever considered your answer to the classic question about who you would invite, alive or dead, to your ideal dinner party? I made my decision about one of my guests this week after researching Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). I decided to research this scientist after I learned from the academic journal “Hispanic American Historical Review” that Humboldt’s American travel journals have been fully digitized.
Humboldt was a naturalist and explorer, born in Berlin, which was part of the Kingdom of Prussia at that time. Although he traveled in Europe, Siberia and Central Asia, his most famous trip was to the Americas from 1799-1804. There he traveled through rain forests and climbed mountains, all while scientifically studying…everything.
Scientists didn’t specialize then as they do now. During his lifetime he studied botany, geology, geography, biology, anatomy, climate, ocean currents and astronomy. I’m sure I’m missing something in that list, but that curiosity about everything is why he would be a great dinner guest.
While in the Americas he collected specimens, mapped rivers and mountains, and left drawings of plants and animals he encountered. He even met with President Thomas Jefferson. When he returned to Europe, Humboldt published a 34-volume account of his American travels, including his Personal Narratives.
During his long career he was an inspiration to other scientists, like Charles Darwin, but also to naturalist writers and poets, like Henry David Thoreau. Humboldt was a celebrity, famous and revered in his own time. You’ve probably been to or heard of something that has been named for him. That list includes rivers, mountain ranges, bays, waterfalls, towns, parks, counties, plants, animals, a glacier, an asteroid, an ocean current, and an area on the moon.
What I find interesting now, in light of all that has changed in the past 200 years of scientific study, is an idea that could make him an hero to modern environmentalists. The foundation of Humboldt’s scientific studies was the idea that everything is interconnected. He saw deforestation in Venezuela and realized that there was a cause and effect relationship between humans and nature. He saw that the effects of deforestation impacted plants, animals and people. He believed that human actions would impact climate for future generations. Because all of nature is connected.
I would love to be able to share some dinner conversation with Humboldt. I just have to wait for other scientists to figure out that whole time travel thing.